May 10, 2023

PU Men’s Lax Routs Yale in Ivy Tourney Final, Will Play at Penn State in NCAA Opening Round

SHOOTING STAR: Princeton University men’s lacrosse player Jake Stevens heads upfield in a 2022 game. Last Sunday, senior midfielder Stevens scored six goals on six shots as Princeton routed Yale 19-10 in the Ivy League postseason tournament final. The Tigers, now 8-6, will play at fifth-seeded Penn State (9-4) in an NCAA first round contest on May 14. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The mission was clear for the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team as it headed to New York City last weekend to compete in the Ivy League postseason tournament.

Coming into the event with a pedestrian 6-6 record, Princeton needed to win the four-team tourney at Columbia’s Wien Stadium to book a trip to the NCAA tournament or it was going home for the season.

“We have been in playoff mode for a couple of weeks now, we had to handle our business to earn an opportunity in the Ivy League tournament,” said Princeton head coach Matt Madalon. “Once you get an opportunity to play the Ivy League tournament and you see how the bracket shakes out, you know you have to go through Penn and then you have to beat either a Cornell or Yale team to earn an opportunity to continue to play.”

Mission accomplished as the Tigers edged Penn 9-8 in the semis on Friday night and then rolled to a 19-10 win over Yale in the final two days later as they improved to 8-6.

Princeton, who advanced to the national semis last year, will now play at fifth-seeded Penn State (9-4) in an NCAA first round contest on May 14.

In the aftermath of a raucous postgame celebration which saw him get doused by a water bucket, Madalon liked the way his players responded with no margin for error.

“The most special thing for me is that after the game was the guys were saying ‘two paths, two paths’ and that’s right,” said Madalon. “We told those guys that there were two paths to the NCAA tournament. Last year we had a good out of conference win against Georgetown and we handled some business elsewhere that gave us a resume that got us in as an at-large. This year, we had some ups and downs and we didn’t handle our business which took two paths down to one path. You talk about playoff lacrosse and putting that urgency in this program a little earlier than others. That is where we were.”

Princeton junior goalie Michael Gianforcaro was thrilled with how the Tigers took care of business last weekend as they extended their season.

“It took everybody; we knew that if we lost, we were going home,” said Gianforcaro, speaking in a postgame interview on the ESPN2 telecast after the win over Yale. “Winning an Ivy League title is great — we are really happy about that. But more than that we just want a chance to keep playing together. We know that if we burn the boats and got out there and win the game, we make it to the NCAA tournament and we get a chance to keep playing together. That is all we want.”

Gianforcaro had it together in the win over Penn, making 15 saves, including several point blank stops.

“He made clean saves, he did a good job outletting the ball,” said Madalon of Gianforcaro. “Both of those goalies made saves, the Penn goalie (Emmet Carroll) ended up giving up a lot of rebounds. He gave up second chance opportunities and Gianforcaro really limited those things.”

After beginning the season in a rotation with Griffen Rakower, Gianforcaro took over the starting role in mid-March and has made the most of that opportunity.

“It is his approach and how he works and how he trains,” said Madalon of Gianforcaro, who has posted 10.40 goals against average and a .592 save percentage this spring. “There is not a shot that he is unprepared for. He works tirelessly at practice.”

Senior midfielders Christian Ronda and Jake Stevens came up big against the Quakers as Ronda tallied three goals and one assist while Stevens chipped in two goals.

“We knew coming into the weekend that our seniors had to play big for us,” said Madalon. “With no one having any experience in this tournament, we had to rely on our seniors. They really took care of us this weekend.”

With Princeton having thrashed Yale 23-10 on March 25 in a regular season contest, Madalon urges his players not to underestimate the Bulldogs in the title game rematch.

“As a coaching staff, we really tried to make sure that our guys understood that is not the Yale team you are going to see,” said Madalon of Yale, who topped Cornell 22-15 in the Ivy semis. “They had rattled off six straight wins, they were playing great lacrosse. They just throttled Cornell.”

It didn’t take long for the Tigers to rattle Yale on Sunday as they took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Alex Slusher six seconds into the game. After the Bulldogs responded with a goal, the Tigers went ahead to stay as Beau Pederson found the back of the net on a hidden ball play which made the ESPN Sports Center Top 10 plays that night.

“We do drills throughout the week with flips, it allows guys to practice that stuff,” said Madalon, referring to the tally by Pederson. “That is unscripted, that is guys playing the game. Those guys kind of ad lib. They have earned the right to and it was a really neat play.”

Princeton exploded from there, jumping out to a 7-1 lead and going into halftime ahead 13-3.

“We love to be up early always but we tend to start a little slower,” said Madalon. “We do like to settle into a sixes game early on. We were scoring in transition and making plays off the face-off. It was a really fortunate start, we were lucky to get those bounces.”

Stevens led the way in the outburst, tallying a career-high six goals on six shots.

“You don’t get many stat lines like that, he got our team award after the game,” said Madalon, who got two goals and three assists from Coulter Mackesy with Sean Cameron chipping in three goals and Alex Vardaro contributing two goals and two assists. “He is our warrior. He does it all for us, he always has. He is an impressive culture-setter, tone-setter. He is a true professional with how he plays.”

The Tigers played all at the defensive end as they stymied a high-powered Yale attack.

“We felt really confident in our matchups,” said Madalon. “They have some outstanding players but there are teams that you just match up well with. We felt confident with our down low matchups. Their midfield is very dangerous, you just try to hang on and get pieces of them and make some saves. Beau Pederson was an absolute force. Cathal Roberts had a great weekend performance.”

With Princeton having dealt with a number of injuries to key players and some disappointing defeats, the squad’s depth and resilience earned it a return trip to the NCAA tourney.

“It is just how we train, we take a lot of pride in training all of our guys from top to bottom,” said Madalon. “It is impressive to see these guys step up confidently. When you put a guy from the third line to the second line and a guy from the second line to the first line, your calls may be a little different and your sets may be different from line to line. Guys can adapt and change. It is a credit to those guys and they work they put in and our coordinators.”

The Tigers will need to step up again in order to overcome a Penn State squad that earned a share of the Big Ten title and has posted wins over such Top-20 foes as Yale, Penn, Cornell, Rutgers, Michigan, and Johns Hopkins.

“I feel like we did play some great lacrosse this weekend but we have to earn another opportunity to do so,” said Madalon. “We are going to try to stack some days of practice this week and see where it takes us. They are an incredible team. Coach [Jeff] Tambroni and his staff have had a great year. Their backs were against the wall last year and they came out this year and flipped it. They rolled some great teams, that is a tough matchup. The key for us is us; getting organized offensively, getting organized defensively.”

In the wake of Princeton’s run to NCAA Final 4 last spring as the program made its first trip to the national semis since 2004, Madalon believes that experience will make his team a tough out in this year’s tourney.

“I would like to think that experience and that understanding of the grind, toughness, and the intensity of playoff lacrosse helps,” said Madalon. “We always try to hunker in and coach a style where you are never out of it. You can push transition and get back in games and you can separate on teams. We are going to try to make this team as dangerous as possible in the next five days.”